There’s so much potential for a TV show set in Stephen King’s favourite endlessly cursed small town that it seemed inevitable that anthology series Castle Rock would disappoint some people. So it’s genuinely impressive that creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason have created something that shouldn’t alienate newcomers while giving King fans the sense of curdled hometown dread they’ve come to love. There are easter eggs galore but (for the most part) they’re not too explicit, with grizzled former sheriff Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn) and Shawshank Prison the biggest direct lifts, and while the storytelling occasionally wobbles, this first season is ambitious, eerie and surprisingly heart-breaking.
Moonlight’s André Holland is death row attorney Henry Deaver, drawn home to Castle Rock after receiving a tip off that a nameless prisoner known only as The Kid (IT‘s Bill Skarsgård, cannily cast and increasingly interesting) has been found in a cage under Shawshank Prison and has asked for him by name. Everyone in town believes that Henry murdered his father, the beloved town pastor, as a child, but they should be more concerned about the escalating levels of puzzling violence circling this mysterious stranger. Why was he locked down there and what will happen when he gets out?
Bingeing this first season helps enormously as the deliberate pacing makes a couple of false starts and several abandoned story elements rather noticeable (one enjoyably gory but essentially pointless episode late in the season feels wasteful). If you devour with it the same greedy enthusiasm as you would a King paperback, Castle Rock is full of dark surprises and well-crafted chills. The plot and (most of) the characters may be new, but the creators have managed to tap into that sense of generations-old darkness at the heart of King’s homecoming tales. Underneath the veneer of neighbourliness and civilisation are barely harnessed bitterness, violence and sacrifice, and the writers find a way to root their high-concept big reveal in the simple horror of that classic King trope: it might be because of this place or it might be because of these people, but someone’s getting hurt.
It would, of course, be much worse off without such a great cast. Sissy Spacek (what a treat it is to see her back in King-land) gives a sharp and heart-breaking performance as Henry’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother Ruth and she gets a stunning showcase episode as the show begins to pull back the curtain. Genre favourite Jane Levy is generally under-utilised but has a lot of fun as morbid local historian Jackie, Scott Glenn brings a steely heart to Pangborn as he fights for his happiness with Ruth, and Holland brings vital shades to Henry as he hunts for the truth about his past. However, it’s the consistently brilliant Melanie Lynskey who emerges as MVP as her spiralling realtor Molly Strand finds heroic purpose navigating this mystery.
While there are strands left dangling for the confirmed second season, this finely crafted horror is a satisfying treat in and of itself. King fans should rest assured that the pleasures outweigh the problems and a trip to Castle Rock is well worth taking.